Older female elephants are wiser matriarchs
By VICTORIA GILL, SCIENCE AND NATURE REPORTER - BBC EARTH NEWS WEBSITE
Added: Sat, 19 Mar 2011 09:49:37 UTC
Elephants pay close attention to their elders, especially when they hear the sound of an approaching predator, scientists have found.
A research team monitored African elephants' reactions when they heard the sound of lions roaring.
Groups of animals with older female leaders, or matriarchs, very quickly organised themselves into a defensive "bunch" when they heard a male lion.
The findings are reported in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B.
Female elephants live in organised social groups
The researchers already knew that older female elephants played very important roles in their social groups.
But in this study, led by Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon from the University of Sussex, UK, scientists managed to put this to the test in a natural setting.
The researchers first recorded lion roars, and separated their recordings into roars from male lions and those from female lions. They then used loudspeakers to play these sounds to 39 groups of female elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya.
The groups with the oldest female leaders, or matriarchs, responded very quickly - and very appropriately - to the roars of male lions. The animals stopped to listen attentively, then bunched together to defend themselves.
"Male lions present a very real threat [for elephants]," said Dr McComb. "They can be successful in bringing down a calf even when alone."
Female lions, however, are unlikely to attack an elephant unless they are in large groups, and the researchers found that older female elephants were able to distinguish the sound of a male lion from a female.
The older females' groups were much more likely to form this defensive bunch and even to aggressively approach the loudspeaker when they were played the roars of male lions.
"Younger matriarchs didn't seem as bothered by male lions as they should have been," Dr McComb said.
"We think its because they hadn't had sufficient exposure to that threat; lions don't [attack elephants] that often."
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